Just then one of the Israelites came and brought a Midianite woman over to his companions, in the sight of Moses and of the whole Israelite community who were weeping at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting.
When Phinehas, son of Eleazar son of Aaron the priest, saw this, he left the assembly and, taking a spear in his hand,
He followed the Israelite into the chamber and stabbed both of them, the Israelite and the woman, through the belly…
The name of the Israelite who was killed, the one who was killed with the Midianite woman, was Zimri son of Salu, chieftain of a Simeonite ancestral house.
Don’t think for a moment that Zimri was an adulterer, God forbid! God would not give such a person mention in the Torah. There must be a secret within…
There are ten levels of licentiousness. The first level is where one fancies himself up and sets out intentionally to sin, which essentially means he willingly follows his sexual urge. After this though, there are nine other levels, each one with progressively less free choice, and it becomes impossible for him to escape from doing the sin.
The tenth and final level is one who has distanced himself from his sexual urge entirely. With all his might he has guarded himself from sin until it is impossible for him to protect himself anymore. When his sexual desire overcomes him and he commits such an act, this certainly must be the will of God.
Look at Judah and Tamar. She was his soulmate. It is the same scenario here too. Zimri guarded himself completely from all wicked desires. And now he understands that [Cosbi] is his soulmate, because he can no longer resist her and from being with her.
However, Pinchas claims the opposite – that it is still in Zimri’s power to resist being with her. This is alluded to in the Talmud (BT Sanhedrin 72b), “Six miracles were done for Pinchas,” and we learn there that had Zimri killed Pinchas on that day, he would have been exempt from punishment. In reality, there was equal weight to both sides. One could argue, and many in fact did, that Pinchas was acting from a place of rage and anger. In a case that is equally strong on either side, Jewish law has a principle of Shuda D’Dina, where the judge is able to side with the party closest to him. It seems that Pinchas was found innocent because he is related to Moses.
This is why the text mentions the name of the slain Israelite. God wanted to make clear to Pinchas after his action just who he was fighting with, lest he think that he was killing someone who was purely an adulterer, God forbid!
Pinchas comes from the seed of Joseph, who strive to perfect themselves via asceticism and through trials just like these. Therefore, Zimri’s actions look devoid of any and all good. On this, the verse states (Hosea 11:1), “I fell in love with Israel when he was still a child,” which fully describes God’s relationship with Pinchas.
He judged Zimri to be an adulterer and nothing more, and ruled that any zealot who encountered him was justified in killing him. However, the depths of what was motivating Zimri were entirely hidden from him, which was that in the six days of creation it was decided that Cosbi was Zimri’s soulmate (as is explained by the Arizal). This action was so deep that not even Moses wanted to sentence him to death.
Pinchas acted like a child. He did not know the depths of Zimri’s action. He could only see what was on the surface and nothing more. Nevertheless, “[God] fell in love with [him] when he was still a child.” and agrees with him, for in his mind he did a great thing by acting with zeal and risking his own life.
This is by far the most famous Ishbitz torah, and not without good reason. Just look at what he is saying:
- Zimri was justified in acting such a way, AND it was preordained since the time of creation.
- Pinchas was wrong to have killed him.
- And if it wasn’t scandalous enough, the Ishbitzer bases this on the principle that sometimes, when a urge to sin is so strong to the point that we can’t resist it any longer, it must be the will of God!
I don’t want to take away from the radical reading given here. It flies in the face of what we are traditionally taught about this story, and spells out what look like very precarious ideas if we are to take them seriously. But there is also such beauty and wisdom the Ishbitzer is giving us by shocking us and making us take notice, helping us open ourselves up to seeing things with new eyes.
This teaching is about Pinchas and not Zimri. About how he acted, and about how we are not to act. The Ishbitzer gives us the idea that a person can work so hard, do everything she can to resist acting a certain way, and yet she still goes through with it. In that case, when all those criteria are met, it is the Divine will. In such situations, we should always be fastidious in asking ourselves “have I actually done everything I can to resist?” and only we can know the answer. Which is entirely the point. Only the actor can know the truth of her actions. It is not for us to judge.
Or it is not for us to judge like a zealot, acting blindly and from a place of anger and rage. Pinchas is acting like a child. He kills based only on what he sees without asking the deeper question of Why? Why would someone do this? Why would s/he act this way? Is there something I’m not taking into account, something I don’t know, and will that have an impact on how I deal with the situation?
What makes this case so remarkable, and why it is such a powerful teaching, is just how bad it looks on the surface. In our own lives, when we are confronted with those deplorable things that make us furious and our blood boil, even the gravest of injustices, we have to be willing to pause for a moment and see what’s going on within. Are we acting from a place of anger, or are we acting for the sake of peace? Are we open to being wrong about this person or situation and what they are doing? Are we capable of holding many truths at once that sometimes have undesirable outcomes? Can we erase rage from our hearts and work not for ourselves or just what we think is right, but for the sake of the whole world?
Link to originial Hebrew text